The Iraqi authorities on Sunday cast doubt on claims that the ISIS leader and purported ‘Caliph’ Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is actually dead following his reported death in a Russian air strike on Raqqa.
Specifically Abu Ali al-Basri, the Director of the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Operations Service, is reported to have said on Sunday that Al-Baghdadi is still live and is in hiding in Syria, presumably in Deir Ezzor province, which is the last significant area of Syria which – apart from its capital Deir Ezzor city – is still under ISIS control.
The Russians for their part have reacted cautiously to this information, conceding that Al-Baghdadi may indeed be still alive, and saying that Al-Baghdadi’s death has not been conclusively confirmed. Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, said as much today Monday
We don’t have some more accurate data. Indeed, contradictory information is coming. Our relevant services are currently checking it.
ISIS originally arose in Iraq and much of its leadership is Iraqi. The Iraqi authorities are therefore especially well-informed about it. Doubts about Al-Baghdadi’s death coming from them must therefore be taken seriously, and as we have seen the Russians are doing so.
A point to bear in mind about the previous reports of Al-Baghdadi’s death – discussed by me previously here – is that ISIS is perfectly capable of circulating false rumours of his death in order to throw his pursuers off his trail and to protect the person of their ‘Caliph’. It may be that the earlier unconfirmed reports of Al-Baghdadi’s death which appeared to originate with ISIS – eg. the ISIS sourced document found in the basement of the building in Mosul, and the information supposedly given by ISIS’s top leadership to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – are precisely instances of ISIS laying such a false trail.
If Al-Baghdadi really is still alive then that would explain why the organisation is continuing to fight back so ferociously, with no sign of its determination to resist diminishing, despite the major defeats it has recently suffered. Here is what I wrote about this previously
Though the Russians appeared confident of their claim, doubt was cast on it by the US and the Kurds whilst I myself was frankly skeptical. My reasons were that there seemed no slackening in ISIS’s fighting capacity as I would have expected if Al-Baghdadi were really dead……
(2) That ISIS continues to function, and is still fighting effectively despite Al-Baghdadi’s death, shows that it still has an organised leadership whose authority and legitimacy is accepted throughout the organisation, and whose orders are obeyed by its fighters. That is an important fact which points to the organisation’s resilience;
In my previous article I said that following the various reports of Al-Baghdadi’s death – some of which clearly originated from ISIS itself – evidence to support the Russian claim that he had been killed was mounting up and that the balance of probabilities strongly pointed to him being dead.
The Iraqi claim that he is still alive shifts the balance back in the other direction.
It is now clear that the truth is that no-one outside ISIS is sure whether Al-Baghdadi is alive or dead.
All I would say – other than that I do not know whether Al-Baghdadi is alive or dead – is that whilst there cannot be absolute certainty about this, if ISIS fails to name a successor to him – as its emir, even if not as its ‘Caliph’ – soon, then it becomes more likely that he is alive rather than dead.